If your daughter has a disability, why bother sending her to school? She will likely not be able to get a job when she is older. After all, who would employ her?
If your sister has a disability, she will likely never get married. After all, why would any man want her? She is a bundle of needs.
Though these statements may raise a few eyebrows in Vancouver they are the norm in parts of Cameroon and, no doubt, other parts of the world.
Global citizenship is a fad that mainstream society is increasingly adopting. We see it everywhere: coffee shops including fair trade items on their menus, clothing stores partnering with international non-governmental organizations in fundraising campaigns and graduate students, like myself, choosing to go abroad to conduct research and get a taste of what it means to be a global citizen.
The reality is that these efforts are not reaching some of the most marginalized groups on Earth like women with disabilities who live in developing countries.
A Cameroonian woman with a disability faces threefold discrimination: gender, disability and low socio-economic status. She is likely to represent the poorest of the poor.
Discrimination starts in her home and spreads from there. Her parents feel it is a waste of money to send her to school, since they do not think she’ll be able to work when she’s older. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A Cameroonian woman who has a disability and no education has few employment options. If she’s lucky, she will learn to sew or make crafts for a neighbour or female relative and earn a meagre income. A continuing problem is getting money to buy the materials to make the goods she desperately needs to sell.
When a young researcher from Canada asks her about whether she has heard of any microfinancing NGOs in her area, she stares back puzzled. This is because NGOs involved with microfinancing often, though not intentionally, exclude women with disabilities in their loan programs.
Her mother likely never talks to her about sex as she is typically seen as asexual. What her parents don’t know is that she is at a higher risk for rape and coercion into sex than her able-bodied counterparts, increasing her chances of contracting HIV. Similarly, the NGOs in her area overlook her as a key target group needing sexual health and HIV/AIDS education. She is seldom tested for HIV as no one ever thinks that she is at risk.
In the same manner, NGOs promoting women’s empowerment and women’s health neglect to address issues concerning women with disabilities and marginalization comes, this time, from able-bodied women.
The last group that is in a position to help women with disabilities in Cameroon, but who often follows suit in sidelining them, is men with disabilities. Disability support groups in the North West Province of Cameroon are led predominantly by men.
During the meetings of these groups, women attempt to make contributions, but are politely disregarded. The continuous marginalization of women with disabilities from multiple sources makes it hard for them to lead healthy, self-sufficient lives.
It’s not all doom and gloom. In the city of Bamenda where I conducted research, not once did I see a woman with a disability begging on the streets; this was pointed out to me by the women in my research who were proud of this. Additionally, a number of women in Bamenda have formed a support group and together they run a shop selling their handmade goods.
Interestingly, the women I interviewed are very aware of some men approaching them primarily for sexual encounters. Despite this knowledge they choose to have relations with men in the hopes of having children, knowing that they will be single mothers.
Women with disabilities in developing countries are resilient. They’re building a life for themselves in the midst of adversity, but they need greater attention. What they need from the international community is to be heard, to be visible and to be included in development initiatives.
It’s time to look hard at who we’re missing in our aid programs and to start allocating our attention and resources to these groups.
You can advocate by requesting that the money you donate to a philanthropic organization be directed specifically to issues concerning women with disabilities. If the organization does not have specific programs for women with disabilities you can encourage it to start including them in its program planning.
Do you have any ideas on helping women in developing nations with disabilities or development stories. Share your thoughts in the comments box below…